To cover or not to cover: Muslim women's struggle with the hijab

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Nazí Paikidze’s recent decision to boycott the Women’s World Chess Championship in February has set off a firestorm of debate about hijabs and what they symbolize: oppression or choice?


Paikidze, a Georgian-American chess champion, announced the boycott in late September after host country Iran mandated that all participants must wear the hijab (like Saudi Arabia, it’s a legal requirement for women there to cover up in public). Earlier this month, she also launched a petition demanding that the World Chess Federation (FIDE) reconsider hosting February’s event in Iran, or require that wearing a hijab be optional. As of Wednesday, Paikidze is just under 9,000 signatures away from reaching her goal of 25,000.

"Some consider a hijab part of culture. But, I know that a lot of Iranian women are bravely protesting this forced law daily and risking a lot by doing so,” Paikidze, 22, wrote in an Instagram post. “That's why I will NOT wear a hijab and support women's oppression"


Many Muslim women have a choice when it comes to wearing a hijab, but others are indeed forced to cover up, and will face consequences in their communities if they don't comply.

#NoHijabDay is a hashtag that first appeared on Twitter in mid-2015, but started to make the rounds again last week. It doesn’t call for all Muslim women to take off the hijab, but rather advocates for those who are forced to wear them.


Islāmic law doesn’t require Paikidze to wear a hijab because she isn’t Muslim. But forcing any woman to wear one is controversial because the Qur’an, Islam's central religious text, doesn’t explicitly state that it's a requirement:

O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful. - Qur’an 33:59


Although God is ordering Prophet Muhammad to tell women to cover themselves up, here, he doesn’t specify where exactly; it’s unclear whether the text refers to hair, certain body parts, or the entire body, so whether women are supposed to wear the hijab or not is debatable.

While reading about Paikidze’s decision, I recalled a time in high school when a senior in my computer programming class angrily asked me—the only Muslim student—why I wear a hijab.

“Because I want to,” I fired back. But my answer didn’t satisfy him.

“Every single girl I’ve asked says the same thing, but you really need to tell the truth. Who forced you to wear the hijab?” he demanded.

I was shocked by his assumption. Like many Muslim women, I chose to wear my hijab, and made the decision without any external pressure. That said, it’s important to stand up for those who are forced to cover up against their will.


Nemat Hamsho, a 31-year-old Syrian living in Sweden, recently took off her hijab for the first time since she was 11 after her ultra-conservative family forced her to wear it. “Mixing culture and religion is toxic. For many years, I wanted to take the hijab off, but couldn’t because I wasn’t financially independent [and relied on my family for support],” she told me over the phone in Arabic.

It was only after Hamsho moved to Sweden three months ago, and became financially independent, that she was able to get rid of her hijab.

Muna Nemer, a 19-year-old college student in North Carolina, briefly removed her hijab last month after wearing it continuously for seven years. Nemer, who was born in America but moved back to Syria with her family in 2000, started covering her hair at 12. But when they returned to the U.S. in 2014 to escape the war, Nemer sensed hostility as one of only two students who wore a hijab at her college. She recalls walking on campus at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, and seeing Islamophobic and pro-Donald Trump messages written in chalk on the ground.


“They wrote things like ‘All Muslims are terrorists,’” she told me over the phone. “It was uncomfortable to walk around, and read these opinions that my peers had about us and other minority groups. These comments were anonymous [so] the fact that they think this was okay, and they hate us so much, is what hurts.”

Nemer's solution was to stop wearing a hijab, but she felt discouraged when she first removed it in public because friends and coworkers congratulated her for escaping oppression. “I didn’t take off my hijab because I was oppressed. I took it off because I don’t want to stand out on campus and in my white-dominated city,” she said.


So, after removing it for two days last summer, Nemer put her hijab back on because she didn’t want people around her to think all women who cover their hair are oppressed. Friends and coworkers weren’t pleased.


In ultra-conservative Muslim communities, many people believe that those who wear the hijab are angelic and sin-free. So, women there often struggle with the decision to remove it because they don’t want to ruin their reputation. Hamsho is one such woman.

Born in Syria and raised in Greece, she yearned to reject her hijab and be accepted by Western society, but also wanted to please her ultra-conservative parents and ex-husband. Since moving to Sweden, Hamsho has experienced backlash from the local Muslim community for taking off her hijab. “My neighbors stopped talking to me, and give me dirty looks,” she said.


Hamsho’s parents also haven’t spoken to her since she posted online about her decision. Meanwhile, Hamsho said her ex-husband took away their four children, and accused her of not having the moral fitness to raise them in Sweden.

Women who choose to wear a hijab in the West face Islamophobic threats every day, but we must also remember that forcing people to cover up is also a form of oppression. Wearing a hijab is a personal decision, and society should respect a woman’s right to choose.

Alaa Basatneh is a human-rights activist and a writer at Fusion focusing on the Arab world. She is the protagonist of the 2013 documentary "#ChicagoGirl."

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